The Components of Strong Working Dog Temperament

 In Articles

What are the components of the working dog temperament?

What are the primary, and what secondary?

Ideal dogs do not exist, so what compromise can and cannot make a breeder, when selecting candidates for breeding?

How to test the “core” -qualities on which build real working dog?

In order to bring clarity to the discussion of the concept of working dogs and what it should be, I suggest you to review an article of Dominick Donovan written almost 20 years ago, but still very relevant today.

The Components of Strong Working Dog Temperament
Dominick Donovan Copyright 1989


There seems to be a very vague definition within our dog sport as to exactly what constitutes strong working dog temperament. Is it the dog who demonstrates incredible intensity in the holding? Is it the dog who, on the courage test, runs at the helper with great speed and strikes with tremendous power? Perhaps it is the dog who bites the helper with an extremely hard, crushing bite. We are of the opinion that all of these characteristics are important working dog attributes and can be of great value in assisting us towards achieving an excellent performance in the protection phase, but they are not necessarily all the critical components of a strong working dog. These are all examples of powerful instincts which are important and necessary components of working dog temperament.

PART I. The Instincts of the Strong Working Dog

The following is a list of important instincts of the strong working dog:

A. Prey Instinct (Booty)

B. Active Aggression

C. Reactive Aggression

D. Social Aggression

E. Pack Instinct

Let us examine each instinct more carefully.

A. Prey Instinct (Booty)

Prey instinct (booty) is the genetically inherited desire in the dog to chase after and seize moving objects. This is the instinct most often understood and easily read. Prey instinct is one of the two most critical instincts necessary for excellent Schutzhund protection work. It motivates a dog to strike the helper with speed and power, and affords us as trainers a form of stress relief in all areas of training (tracking, obedience, protection).

B. Active Aggression (Fighting Drive)

Active aggression is an offensive aggression commonly referred to as “fighting drive”. It is the second critical instinct for excellent Schutzhund protection work. It is characterized by a dog which demonstrates explosive, rhythmic barking in the out and holding phase of the protection work. It enables the dog to be positively stimulated into the work by compulsion.

C. Reactive Aggression (Defense/Self-Preservation)

Reactive aggression is totally different from active aggression. It is not a critical instinct for Schutzhund training. It is characterized by a dog with a generally protective nature and is often linked to territoriality. Reactive aggression is commonly referred to as sharpness. It can act as a catalyst for the other protective drives (active aggression, booty, social aggression), and lends versatility for practical application for such jobs as police dog, personal protection dog, and/or guard duty.

However, reactive aggression must be delicately balanced in the dog’s temperament because it is comprised greatly of both fight and flight instincts. Reactive aggression is only desirable if it is based on the fighting aspect with little or no trace of flight instinct being present.

D. Social Aggression

Social aggression is the dog’s desire to establish pack hierarchy (alpha/leader). It is also another instinct which is not critical for Schutzhund protection training. However, it is an instinct which can give the dog an added strength because it is not reactive aggression (defense/self-preservation) and, therefore, it does not have the potential disadvantage of flight behavior. Since social aggression has no flight counterpart, the dog does not perform under the same level of stress as in reactive aggression.

Social aggression is characterized by a dog that demonstrates a deep grumbling bark. This type of dog also generally expresses itself in a very dominant manner. Social aggression is almost exclusively a male characteristic. It can be the determining factor in a protection dog successfully facing a life threatening situation (i.e., police dog, personal protection dog, military dog, etc.).

As breeders/trainers, we stress a mild level of social aggression because the potential drawback of an excessive level of social aggression is constant struggle for authority thereby hampering trainability.

E. Pack Instinct

Pack instinct is the genetically inherited trait in the dog to socially interact and closely bond to its pack members (i.e., handler, family). Pack instinct, although not critical for Schutzhund performance, is extremely advantageous, lending itself towards high trainability. When in combination with social aggression, the advantage of social aggression is utilized while still lending the dog to a high level of trainability.

Although highly important components of excellent performance temperament, the instincts described above are not the true determining factors for strong temperament. Parallel to the aesthetically beautiful house with attractive components such as a lovely landscape, excellent interior design, and modern conveniences, it is the inner core of the dog, much like the strong foundation on which the house is built, that give both the dog and the house their true strength and value.

PART II. The Inner Core of The Strong Working Dog

The core of the strong working dog consists of these elements:

A. The Nervous System

B. Hardness

C. Irritability Threshold (Defense Threshold)

We must consider each of these in turn in order to understand how they supply and maintain the essential foundation for strength in the working dog.

A. The Nervous System

The nervous system is one of the two most critical components in the core of a truly strong working dog. It is the dog’s ability to generally accept all aspects of its environment without exhibiting signs of nervousness, fear, or flight.

The general characteristics of a dog with a poor nervous system include the dog that shows signs of nervousness when exposed to loud sounds (i.e., gunfire, thunderstorms, etc.), and/or the dog which shows nervousness or fear upon entering a strange environment (i.e., after shipping, at a strange training field, in a crowded room, etc.). By contrast, the dog with a sound nervous system will accept all such and any other changes in its environment without negative effect.

B. Hardness

Hardness is the dog’s ability to recuperate from a disagreeable experience. Although the least critical of the three core traits, hardness is still a very desirable trait. Hardness allows the trainer to use the advantages of compulsion for precise competitive training without hindering the natural working spirit of the dog.

C. Irritability Threshold (Defense Threshold)

The irritability threshold is the amount of psychological stress (not physical stress) the dog can withstand while in the state of reactive aggression (defense) before exhibiting signs of conflict or flight behavior.

Conflict is the crossover stage between fight and flight behavior. The ordinary signs of conflict include:

Raising of hackles
Low tail carriage
Obvious high pitch tone of bark indicating stress
Any signs of withdrawal or retreat on the part of the dog
Irritability threshold is the most critical and least understood aspects of the dog’s temperament. It is very difficult to evaluate a dog’s threshold and normally it requires a skilled eye to make the correct evaluation. For a correct evaluation, the dog’s reactive aggression (defense) must be completely isolated, that is, no other instincts may be allowed to come into action (i.e., active aggression, prey).

In order to correctly evaluate the irritability threshold, the following test must be performed in the very specific manner outlined.

PART III. The Test For Determining The Irritability Threshold In The Working Dog

The following steps should be taken to evaluate the dog’s irritability threshold.

A. The dog shall be taken to an area totally unfamiliar to him. He should be tied to a sturdy object (tree, etc.) with a solid equipment that can withstand the dog’s lunges and cause the dog no injury (i.e., chain, leather collar).

B. The dog shall be left alone in the test area for a minimum of fifteen minutes after which a strange helper shall test the dog in the following specific manner.

C. The helper shall wear no protective equipment as this would give false reading of the defense threshold because the dog’s other instincts (i.e., active aggression, prey) have been conditioned upon the visual sighting of the equipment.

D. The helper shall walk slowly and directly towards the dog making and keeping direct eye contact with the dog. The object is to psychologically present a challenge to the dog without making any movements other than the direct frontal approach toward the dog. It is critical that the helper make no other movement (especially quick) of his arms or any other parts of his body since this would likely bring other instincts into drive. The helper must make no attacking or retreating gestures at all, but only proceed in a slow, steady approach directly towards the dog, keeping eye contact and ignoring the dog’s behavior.

E. The object of the test is to evaluate the dog’s determination in his defense instinct when it is not being reinforced. As the helper gets closer to the dog, he will probably notice some signs of conflict (stress) in the dog’s behavior (i.e., raising hackles, high pitched bark, retreat).

F. The dog which shows little or no signs of conflict throughout the test during the helper’s slow, deliberate approach is the dog with a strong threshold.

It should be remembered, however, that very few dogs show absolutely no signs of stress when a test of this nature is correctly applied. Most dogs fall somewhere between the ideal and terrible, and the helper must be careful never to push the dog completely into flight since this would be detrimental to training goals.


Overall, remember that instincts are a very important aspect of the dog’s character, but only when supported by a strong inner core.

From our experience as breeders and trainers, we have painstakingly discovered that it is the deep inner core of the dog which holds the most genetic as well as training value.

If in breeding a compromise must be made (as often it must since there are few perfect dogs), far better that one should compromise on the instincts as opposed to the core of the dog. Like the house with an excellent foundation, it can be easily redecorated and made “like new”, so too, the dog with an excellent core can be genetically enhanced by breeding to more highly instinct animals, provided they also have a good core, thereby producing versatile, all around strong working dogs.

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